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Columbia Graduate Workers Organize to Vote No on Proposed Contract

Graduate student workers at Columbia will soon be voting on whether to accept a proposal for their first union contract. But the proposed contract sells out almost all of their demands.

Olivia Wood

April 20, 2021
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Photo: Rommel Nunez (@rommelnunezg)

On Monday evening, the Graduate Workers of Columbia (GWC) union announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the university for the union’s first contract. The union was on strike for three weeks before agreeing to a strike pause earlier this month.

The proposed contract fails to meet most of the union’s strike demands. In one analysis by Columbia Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, only ten of the 48 initial demands are met by the tentative agreement, with only nine more classified as “kind of” or partially met

There are several major failings for workers in the tentative agreement. 

  1. There is no provision for neutral, third party arbitration for cases of discrimination, harassment, and abuse. This was one of the most discussed demands during the strike. Raymond Givens, the associate director of the cardiac care unit at the Columbia University Medical Center, has stated that lack of neutral arbitration is a public health threat for survivors of sexual assault. The union’s Care Committee is also calling for a no vote on these grounds. 
  2. Many student workers, including undergraduate TAs and those who work fewer than 15 hours per week, are excluded from the bargaining unit entirely. Despite doing the same jobs, these workers will not be protected by the contract.  
  3. The proposed raises fall short of both the original demands and even the union’s revised proposal, and do not provide a living wage to any members of the bargaining unit. MIT calculates that a living wage for a single adult with no children in Manhattan working full time is $21.77 per hour, or $45,282 per year. If this contract is approved, Columbia student workers won’t be making that much even by the time the contract expires in 2024. 
  4. The proposed contract fails to provide adequate healthcare. Under the proposed contract, workers will still need to pay out of pocket for dental and vision care with only the possibility of being reimbursed by the university from a fund far too small to cover the costs of 4,000 bargaining unit members. 

One of the Columbia administration’s arguments against providing raises for student workers was that Columbia PhD students already have higher salaries than students at other New York City universities. As we previously explained, being better paid than other similarly-exploited workers does not remotely mean that compensation is adequate, and this argument is a tactic used by management to suppress wages across workplaces. However, even by the university’s own logic, this proposed contract is severely lacking. The NYU Graduate Student Union already has third party arbitration and a minimum hourly wage of $20, and wages for hourly positions frequently held by graduate students at CUNY and The New School are significantly higher.

The Columbia Graduate Student Workers deserve a strong contract — a contract that pays workers a living wage, protects them from discrimination, and provides them with full healthcare coverage. Graduate workers across New York City’s other schools should stand in solidarity with their colleagues at Columbia — and grad workers at NYU, who begin their own strike next week — in this contract fight and always.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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